Michelle Sagara contemplates the Alpha Male
[themify_box ]Michelle Michiko Sagara is a Japanese-Canadian author of fantasy literature, active since the early 1990s. She has published as Michelle Sagara, as Michelle West and as Michelle Sagara West. She lives in Toronto and is employed part-time at Bakka.[/themify_box]
Kameron Hurley wrote an interesting post here:
“Someone once asked me why “alpha males” were so popular in so much romantic speculative fiction, and I hesitated to answer it. Not because I didn’t know, but because I knew I was going to have to have a discussion about teasing out the difference between finding pleasure in something you genuinely find pleasurable and taking pleasure in something you think you’re supposed to find pleasurable”
But her post, while smart, doesn’t really answer the question; I don’t think it actually addresses the question. I think it does answer the question of why we buy in to certain things in real life. But fiction is not, in the end, real life.
Romance is fantasy. It is wish-fulfillment. The core of the story is idealized romantic love. I can, without doubt, pick apart the realism of any romance I am given – but that’s actually not the point. I can pick apart the realism of pretty much any book I’m given. It took me a long time to understand that romance is fantasy, and only when I did could I read it on its own terms and be open to its tropes.
There are some romance tropes I dislike. There are some I adore. It’s a balance: the romance and relationship has to be emotional, and it has to fit the narrow, narrow wedge of my own emotional needs. It’s not, therefore, about the books, but about me, and about how much disbelief I can personally suspend.
I write fantasy. I write about dragons and magic and flying, winged people. I can obviously suspend disbelief when I write, because I do not actually think any of these things can exist in the real world. But when I write, I believe. To read a book, I have to be able to believe in the same way. Any book.
I don’t think the question that opens this can be answered without first defining what Alpha Male means within romance. Hurley’s contention that we’ve been conditioned as a society to prize certain types of behaviour is inarguable. But alpha male behaviour in romance – at least in modern romance – is not so much with the bullying. It’s not so much with the lack of consent on the part of the heroine, not really.
I think, superficially, people can point at the romance alpha male behaviour and question it. They can point out that this behaviour in Real Life would be considered abusive and harassing. They can point at the ways in which this behaviour would be both creepy and entirely unacceptable. And, yes. Divorced from the emotional consent of the reader, all of this would be true; divorced from the emotional consent of the heroine, all of this would also be true.
But the reason that people find this compelling is not, imho, because they’ve been conditioned to find pleasure in being bullied.
The alpha male in romance – the hero – is more than the sum of his problematic parts. The alpha male is not actually weak. It’s not that his social external status makes him strong; he is strong enough to live in his external status and earn it simply by being himself. He knows what he wants. He knows how to work. He knows how to take charge in difficult situations. He knows how to get things done. He does not require his a) mother or b) nanny or c) beta chorus to tell him that he’s strong or important – because he knows. His ego, such as it is, is secure. He’s not trying to impress. He’s simply impressive.
He is therefore not a person who is passively waiting for the heroine to make all of the emotional decisions. Or any of his life decisions except the one that’s at the core of the novel: his happiness, because in romance, his happiness is not tied to all of the other things that define his status. It is tied to love.
Whatever he sees in the heroine, he sees. He wants it. He does not care about her status harming his. He does not care how other people see her, because frankly, why the hell would he? He’s secure. He doesn’t want her because other people would, or do. He wants her, period. He is never, ever going to be the husband who tells his wife, “you better start working out, you need to lose some weight” because he’s self-conscious about how other people will judge him for having a chubby wife. He is never going to be concerned that her age is showing; he is never going to have an affair with a random, twenty-year old secretary, etc.
Readers give consent to the relationship not because the hero is an asshat, but because the hero is an idealized grown-up. His ego does not require bolstering: he could not care less what other people think of him. What he needs, undiluted, is the heroine.
Let me go one step further. He is not looking for love to define his life and give it meaning. He has a life. He has a life he’s in control of. Men who read romances looking for clues on how to approach women are taking the wrong things out of the reading if they’re focused on out-of-context behaviours. The alpha has confidence in himself. He is not looking at love as a way of bolstering a (non-existent) confidence. He has proven that he can, thank you very much, be strong without a relationship to define him. But…he is aware that something is missing.
If you’re male and reading romance to try to understand what women want, that’s what you should take out of these books: that you need to be confident, and to have a life of your own, interests of your own, direction and motivation of your own; that you can, in fact, take care of yourself and all of the details of life and living, before you look for your life-mate. You cannot expect that these things are donated simply by having a girlfriend/wife, etc. They’re not.
As I said: the alpha male is idealized. Because he is a fantasy. But it’s the confidence and the commitment and the lack of feminine (the heroine’s) responsibility for another person that makes the trope attractive. If the heroine suffers from lack of confidence, it doesn’t matter; he has confidence. If she’s uncertain, if she desires him but she’s afraid to commit to more, he’s certain. The decisions and the mess are not actually hers to clean up. He is never, ever, going to whine at her. Or be passive-aggressive. Passive-aggression is…not at all attractive. No one fantasizes about being involved with a passive-aggressive.
In real life, women are responsible for so much, emotionally. On hard days, on days when they just want to give up and crawl back into bed, one of the things they daydream of, outside of romance novels, is for someone else to pick up the slack for a day or a week or a month. It’s for someone else to get a grip, to take responsibility for their own lives, so that the woman herself can be responsible, for a tiny while, for just herself and her own needs. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say: on some days, when things are overwhelming, I want someone to take care of me.
And that kind of care happens when we’re three. Or five. Or sick as a dog. If it happens at all. It’s not realistic. It’s not a desire upon which to build a real life. And we don’t. But we can dream.
I don’t think it’s social conditioning about alpha males that causes the reading pleasure. I don’t think it’s the conditioning that makes romance alpha males work for readers. I think it’s the rest of real life. It’s having to raise children and be aware of their needs and their emotions constantly. It’s having to deal with failed relationships or walking away from those that are just draining because of incompatibility, etc. It’s having to be responsible, always, for other people. It’s having to make nice and to be someone else or be something other than we actually are for so much of day-to-day life.
The romance alpha male wants the heroine for herself. And he is totally, entirely, confident in that desire. He is confident enough that he navigates some of the heroine’s doubts and the insecurities that arise from just being female in the world.
The big thing about alpha males in a romance – the thing that is the fantasy – is that they take care of everything themselves. I mean everything. They’ve got so much going on – they’re rich, they’re high status, they’re (generally) gorgeous – that they don’t require someone external to prop them up in any way. They are not interested in women-as-armpiece. They are so certain of their status they don’t require an armpiece.
You can say: that’s unrealistic. There will be no argument from me. But that’s WHY it’s a fantasy. That’s what makes it an escape. It’s not a comfort because it’s same-old, same-old. It’s a comfort because it never was. Just like dragons never were. Or sorcery. Or magic swords. Or super-heroes.
It is comfort reading. It is emotionally involving, when done well. It is something that we can, while reading, believe in, and take strength from when we once again turn to face the real life we’ve built.
This is why I think alpha males are popular in romantic fiction, speculative or otherwise.
Romance and romance reading is enough of a feminine bastion, I hate to see a huge swathe of it dismissed this way. The dismissal is once again aimed at the heart of things that women love, by implication because those things are “here to comfort folks who’ve chosen to live and organize themselves in certain ways and say, “Yes, of course. It’s always been this way. It will only ever be this way”.
I don’t think that what we read for comfort says very much about the other books we also read; nor can we draw conclusions about how romance readers have chosen to live outside of the books they read for comfort. Readers are not monolithic. I know a lot of people who read romance, and they are not of a single mind or a single life – or even a single life-style. By all means make clear that you are not writing books that will offer comfort to some readers – but you can do that without implying that the reading of these for comfort means you have chosen to live a certain way to somehow enforce the status quo.
This is exactly why many women I know do not publicly admit they read romances: it’s this attitude.
If we are decrying the need for comfort at all, that’s a separate issue, beyond the remit of this column.
And full disclosure: I don’t write romance. I cannot figure it out while in the depths of an actual book. I have tried – I can’t do it; for me, it’s hard. There is nothing worse than a romantic attachment that feels shoe-horned in; it is awkward and no reader will believe it. I therefore do not have a dog in this race. I am not defending something I write.
But I feel the need to defend something that millions of people read for comfort. I want to point out that there is m/m romance, there is inter-racial romance, lesbian romance – that if the boundaries being stretched are not as far-flung and wide-reaching as cutting edge SF or F, they are nonetheless being stretched. And they are being stretched, in the end, from a place of comfort – and comfort requires trust.
I think the problem I have with alpha heroes (and I have a BIG problem – not with what other people read, but with what I’m able to enjoy when I read) is that the hero’s agency too often seems to come at the expense of the heroine’s. He’s got his life in order, he’s confident, he takes charge – and too often he’s paired with a heroine who’s life ISN’T in order, who isn’t confident, and who doesn’t take charge. So in my reading, it isn’t always that I don’t like the alpha hero, but it IS often that I don’t respect the heroine who puts up with him.
And I’ve too often read books where women who ARE confident in themselves – in their sexuality, in their careers, etc. are cast as the evil exes or sinister competition.
I don’t want to go all Foucault on this, but I think there is a power/control element to most relationships, and for me, the most appealing romances are the ones where this is very evenly balanced. But when alpha heroes are presented as being so over-the-top confident and decisive, how can the relationship work if the heroine is equally confident and decisive? (Can anyone recommend a Battle of the Alphas romance for me, one where the heroine doesn’t come off as a vindictive, irrational shrew?)
And of course, as soon as the alpha hero uses his physical strength or even intimidation to coerce the heroine, the book is ruined for me. Obviously not for others, and I really don’t want to ruin books for people if they’re enjoying them, but maybe it’s a question worth discussing… at what point does ‘alpha’ become ‘controlling and abusive’?
I guess it may be a question of me not wanting to suspend my disbelief because this ISN’T a fantasy for me. I mean, I want the man in my life to be independent, and I want him to take care of me ON MY TERMS, but I don’t want him making decisions for me. No way. So maybe the alpha hero is never really going to work for me. Which is too bad, because he’s pretty damn hard to avoid!
This post pretty much nails the appeal of the alpha male fantasy for me. It’s why, when I’ve had a really bad day, when I’m tired and fed up of having to be responsible for everything in my life, I’ll reach for a Betty Neels, or a HP, or something else with a hero who “is an idealized grown-up.”
Wonderful piece. We know the stories aren’t real, and not how life is. You’re so right about the comfort element in them. They’re fun, that’s why I read them. Not because I want a relationship as depicted in the story.
The idea of “alpha male as ideal grown up” is new to me, and i think it might work. It actually fits well with the comfort reading idea. You are sick of being the adult, you want to cuddle down with your book and cheesy crackers and tea, and you want to indulge in the fantasy of Someone Else Taking Charge. And not necessarily the sexual fantasy–it’s really about not having to make decisions for a while. THAT’S decadent.
*goes off in search of cheesy crackers*
Too many of the so-called alpha males I meet in romance novels are not so much (to my perception) strong and confident as *jerks*. When I find those who are actually strong and confident–those who fit the definition you’ve presented here as an alpha male–I love them, possibly for precisely the reasons you delineate. Wonderful essay!
I think sometimes alpha males have an element of– hm. Superceding a woman’s undesired cultural indoctrination. So you have the jerk alpha who is emphatic about what he wants from the heroine, but it represents (as I guess we all know) the ability to indulge guilt-free because the jerk alpha is making you do it. Less sex these days, I suspect, and more things like eating, accepting help, etc. I find it ugly to read a lot of the time, but I understand the attraction behind it.
I am firmly in I *mostly do not care* for alpha male stuff – and yes, it is because the ones I remember were mostly jerks IMO. As a regular occasion, I mostly agree with what Kate Sherwood wrote, but I can love an alpha -male like Curran from Kate Daniels series – sure he wants to protect Kate any chance he gets, and he really really disappointed me in book six of the series, because he showed the traits of alpha characters I cannot stand. However, just as often if not more, I see him respecting Kate and respecting her making her own decisions and for me it makes all the difference, you know?
Otherwise give me a “beta hero” – any time. My absolute favorite m/f romance that I have read last year was “Untamed” by Anna Cowan, just to give you an idea.
Interesting. I don’t care for the OTT alpha male I encounter in many books. They don’t so much feel like an “ideal grown up” to me, more the insecure jerk from high school who had to have everything HIS WAY because anything else was a threat (thus they chose the weak girl who didn’t have it together because she needed them badly enough to put up with their crap).
Isobel Car: Exactly, completely agree.
I, too, agree with Kate Sherwood. Whenever I read a book with an ‘alpha’ hero, the heroine always seems to come across (and this is just personal, and probably says more about me than about the book or other readers and what they take from it) as someone who doesn’t want a partner, but rather a Daddy.
Yes, we may all fantasise about having someone ride in and take the troubles of the world off our shoulders, but with that abnegation of responsibility comes the loss of power or the RIGHT to be responsible. It’s something I associate more with little girls, playing flirty with Daddy to get that ice cream or that pony ride. Grown women negotiate. And, again in my opinion, there is no negotiating with Alphas – it’s his way or the highway. And, sorry, but I’ll take that lovely, wide-open road before I perform like a seal for a man.
That said, I know plenty of women who love to read about Alphas, and have no problem with it. So, maybe it’s just me…
I enjoy a good “alpha male ” read but would most likely see that guy as a “jerk” if I knew him in real life. It is all fantasy in my eyes and so I am okay when his behavior is problematic. As you said it really is about how much disbelief I can personally suspend. There is a line each reader has and when it is crossed it can change a possible “comfort read” into a “DNF” in an instant.
@Kate Sherwood: The recommendation you requested is Thea Harrison. Unfortunately, that is the only book that comes to mind where I truly believed the heroine has equal self-confidence, agency, etc. There are other books where the author tries to tell me that the heroine is equal in all those respects with the alpha ale but they fail to show me that is in fact the case (and they usually show me the opposite).
Oops, my post above left out the book title: Kinked. Her other books don’t fit your request.
@Kate Sherwood – have you read Julie James? She tends to write alpha women and men, and the balance of power is usually very even, or tipped in the woman’s favor.
I think her clearest “battle of the alphas” book is Practice Makes Perfect, about two lawyers competing for one partner position. The conflict is played for laughs and both come off equally badly, and neither has to sacrifice their career for their hea. It’s one if her early books so it’s not as polished, but it’s fun. The first two FBI /US Attourney books also have that dynamic.
Also, Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook.
@Sirius: yes, Sirius. The male lead in “Untamed” was absolutely wonderful. He embodied all the conflicts of what makes a human being human. I just adored him because he when he was motivated to act, he did so because of who he WAS. Not because he was expected to as a chest-thumping jerk. Sorry but many books go unread by me when the hero is an all-knowing Alpha.”Oh Lord, give me a Beta anytime.
This reasonated with me.
This post is the best explanation of the appeal of alpha heroes that I’ve read. I hate assholey heroes and there’s a lot of overlap between alphas and assholes, but I there’s something appealing to me about a care taking alpha in romance. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much of my life establishing my independence, particularly from men but just in general too. The fantasy of being taken care of without losing my identity is pretty appealing.
What you’ve described is the reason why I am not interested in most mainstream romance. If the effects of the assumption (and thus societal reality) that women should and will bear all emotional and caregiving burdens and men will take care of everything else is what makes alpha males attractive, you are in fact attributing their popularity to social conditioning.
There’s nothing wrong with comfort reading, but if that’s all we ever do, nothing will ever change, and all we’ll have is a seemingly unattainable romantic fantasy that we read about in books. I am more interested in real people’s romantic reality. I do not believe it is too much to ask to want to read about two independent, capable people who have nevertheless decided to depend on and support each other to the best of their ability through thick and thin. Nor do I believe that it’s too much to ask to expect that in our own relationships.
I’d rather read about the reality I want to see than the same old tired tropes, especially in m/f, where gender roles and expectations seem to keep getting in the way and where the very protectiveness and “taking care of everything” attitude that makes alpha males appealing is just more proof that mainstream m/f romance is based on men knowing better and saving women from themselves. I’ll pass, thanks.
@cleo: The description you quote works for me if it also applies to the female lead. If it’s not, forget it. I’m not interested.
I think there’s more than one alpha male type and heroine. Michelle describes the one with a heroine who needs care, which is a wonderful fantasy at times. There is also the fact that an alpha male needs an alpha female, someone strong enough to balance him, and maybe someone who isn’t threatened by his alpha and is ready to take him on where he stands, and not let him get away with anything.
The real point that Michelle makes so beautifully is that tropes are fantasies and we are all big girls and understand that. We choose our fantasy and indulge in it.
Judge us at your own risk, if you think that reveals something about who we are in real life.
I always have trouble with the term Alpha Male, because I first learned it in the context of wolf packs, where the alpha male (and the alpha female for that matter) is a strong natural leader. The understanding of wolf packs has changed quite a bit since that terminology and understanding was popular, but that is what I think of. Alpha means strong, talented, natural leader, caretaker of the pack. I like this sort of character very much.
But when alpha is used to mean bossy and domineering, not so much. It reminds me of why I mostly read M/M romance these days. I am kind of allergic to men bossing women around. :-) As others have said, this is just my personal response, and I am not at all saying that enjoying this dynamic is problematic or even necessarily means anything in real life. It is just my own emotional reaction.
People looking for the alpha pair dynamic in M/F might try Shelly Laurenston. I generally found her heroines to be capable of being matches for the heroes.
I like fiction about realistic romances, sure. I love the complexity of realistically flawed people giving and taking. But– the real world is more complicated than can ever be portrayed in fiction. It would be nice to be able to demand that all our relationships be with independent capable people. But not everybody is heroically independent and capable and sometimes they still manage to be in relationships with others. Demanding there won’t accomplish anything productive. So… I totally totally believe there is a place for comfort reading. As Michelle Sagara said, comfort reading is rarely exclusive reading.
Thank you, this exactly describes why I enjoy “care taking alphas” – it sweeps me away from my life where I take care of everyone else, and have someone instead take care of me. Best fantasy ever. Better than sci fi. :)
I adore alpha male romance and alphas in general. I can handle alot of extreme alphaholish behavior in romance and still adore the man if he is truly obsessed and unbelievably in love with his woman. To me it’s a version of beauty and the beast. In fact the more obsessive/stalkerish and emotionally crippled the alpha, the better (Lol). My favorite alphas are Zsadist (JR Ward) and Knight (Kristen Ashley). So that shows how much I can handle. I like seeing overly confident men; men who have things come easy to them but not this; men who think they cannot love or are unloveable; men who have naughty kinks and secrets- find love with a woman and they are freaking OBSESSED with her. Part of the alpha fantasy for me is the idea of this enigmatic, complicated man loves only ME and then wants to take care of me (NOT financially, I can take care of myself!) but emotionally. LOVE. IT. The best is when an author cracks open that hard (mean?) alpha exterior and shows us the marshmallow center that only the heroine can expose. I eat that up. (not literally!)
I’ve noticed how the heroine is doesn’t matter to me in this scenario. I don’t expect her to be a certain way. She can be mary sue, or “fiesty” or virginal or not. Whatever. Well, virginal does kinda ring my bell…. but she must push back, the hero (and I) never want someone he can roll right over and completely dominate (Boring!). My favorite trope might be when the heroine’s a hard worker and can’t see him as much as he wants because she’s working and she refuses any help from him financially. That’s cool.
ps- Right now I’m reading a Billionaire/Virgin/BDSM where the hero enjoys dressing her for particular occasions. Lol Again- I am eating this up! Such a fun fantasy. I do not want my own husband necessarily doing this for me, but in a book- it totally works. It’s darling, care taking alpha behavior at its best!
pps- What Kate said about how heroines are portrayed I’ve heard before. And what’s weird is I don’t see it. I wonder why the difference? What am I missing here? Do I dismiss that stuff and read something else? Most of the books I read have heroines I respect. I did dnf a book last week because I didn’t like the heroine-I didn’t like how she was portrayed as a mother of young children, it was all wrong for me. But really, I don’t find all these sinister, yucky female characters in books, or at least I don’t see them as standing out any more than men are portrayed the same way. To me they’re just characters. There ARE mean women out there in real life, and mean men. I read books all the time with sexually confident heroines. I do find the occasional slut shaming, which I hate and I wish would go away. Is that what is being referenced? And I read lots of “competence porn” where the heroine is an expert at what she does. I’ve always thought our genre was moving forward, showing women as independent and confident. Am I being overly optimistic? I feel that as a genre we are good at peer review, calling out inappropriate portrayals of women and requiring more from ourselves in the way we represent women and their choices in print. To me this alpha obsession fits in with this perception. These men are brought low by their need for this woman. and It isn’t because of how this woman caters to them, it’s because they see her intrinsic worth and value. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t read romance often feeling dissatisfied at the overall portrayal of women. But others do, right?….Hmm, sounds like a good subject for an opinion piece!
I can enjoy a good beta male OR a good alpha male, or a hero who doesn’t fall into either of the categories. Which is why it often feels icky to hear others denigrating the alpha male trope – it often comes along with a lot of disdainful assumptions about who’s reading such stories and why that simply aren’t true. A lot of the time, I read alpha male stories because they’re exciting. They’re dramatic. They are nothing like what romance usually is in the real world, and that’s WHY they appeal – I wouldn’t want to have a screaming, knock-down fight with my boyfriend even if there were cuddles and hot make-up sex afterwards, but it sure is exciting to read about.
Interesting. I read Ms. Sagara’s post as saying that the appeal of the alpha isn’t in “my way or the highway” behavior, but rather in his knowing his own mind and his sense of security, which to me are not the same thing. But a lot of readers seem to have gotten something different from the post, and I wonder how much of that is because of its content and how much because of the context in which we read it– having all come across some alpha jerks in our reading, which is not what I think Ms. Sagara was describing.
@Kate Sherwood & @Sirius: Try Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. It’s debatable whether the hero is an alpha but the heroine certainly is.
The thing that frustrates me about the denigration of Romance, for which the Alpha hero is often exhibit #1, is that most popular fiction by male writers is fiction, too. Jack Reacher, James Bond, Travis McGee, I could go on and on. The most egregious was the Da Vinci code. The middle-aged professor not only got the hot, younger woman, but she was the descendent of Jesus!
That’s not fantasy? If the Da Vinci Code had had a middle-aged professor for a heroine who, with the help of the hot, younger Jesus-descendent solved the mystery, people would sneer at it.
My ideal alpha is probably Wulfric Bedwyn, of Mary Balogh’s Simply series.
I wouldn’t say that Christine, the heroine, by definition is weak or needs care.
@lawless There’s nothing wrong with comfort reading, but if that’s all we ever do, nothing will ever change, and all we’ll have is a seemingly unattainable romantic fantasy that we read about in books..
1. I think I made clear that in this case, it IS a fantasy. It is not real life. So what I’m reading here is: if you take comfort from having fantasies, all you will ever have is a fantasy. And I don’t, obviously, agree with this – but I write fantasy for a living. I don’t assume that readers who read my books for comfort are now living in a wasteland in which they will never have anything real. Demonstrably, they are real people. Except the tweetbots.
2. I agree that if all anyone ever does is read for comfort, nothing changes. But clearly no one actually does that; they have to work, eat, and put roof over their head; they have to interact with other people; they have to shoulder their own particular responsibilities. How they work, or where, or etc., can’t be generalized from the fact that you don’t find comfort in the same things they do.
I was possibly, when trying to explain the actual appeal, too specific. I could have said, given that my kids are now older and now require very little intervention, that “when my father is not doing well, and my sister requires support, and I am dealing with medical diagnoses, and I’ve tossed the three previous iterations of a VERY LATE book to start it again, and people are screaming at me because of all of these things and more, and the washer has just died, and the fridge is empty, and I have zero energy to deal with any more of it”, I have the desire to have someone deal with my life because I personally feel buried by it, that might have seemed less about social conditioning and more about personal cope.
And that’s pretty much my point. I don’t particularly care for asshats. I don’t like a certainly type of behaviour that is considered alpha by some readers. I don’t, however, disdain readers who give consent to that particular paradigm when reading. I don’t assume I can make generalizations about who they are or what they do in real life.
What I say is “Wow, that doesn’t work for me” or “Wow, that squicks me out”. Rape fantasy is problematic for me but I also understand that this would be because as a reader, I don’t give consent to that. I don’t, however, imagine that in the romance context, rape fantasy is about supporting the existence of rapists.
What Miss Sagara says above is pretty much the only type of alpha hero I have any patience to read about–one who’s so comfortable in his own sense of self that he doesn’t really ever cross the line into becoming an asshole. However, while I enjoy such a character type I have certain reservations about the way even such a “progressive” alpha type is portrayed–namely, their tendency, in some way or the other, to bulldozer the heroine, and others around them.
And that’s one reason why I find myself agreeing with what lawless said above. I’m becoming more and more interested in reading romances where the aforementioned alpha hero’s sense of security allows room for the heroine’s insecurities too, and provides a space where she grows to be one who’s confident/comes_into_her_own at her own pace, without the hero jumping in.
Of course, this can happen the other way around too (where the hero starts off as the one who perceives himself to be “lesser” in any way and the heroine’s the one that’s more confident–though I don’t remember come across any a lot of such romances).
A hero can be an alpha, a beta, a gamma (I am fond of those), without being an asshat. If someone crosses the line into being a jerk, they become – in my mind – a jerk. Anyone, from any walk of life, in any position, can be a jerk. I don’t consider the defining trait of an alpha to *be* jerk-ness. If your definition of alpha is my definition of asshole, I can see why every single word I’ve written feels like a defense of assholes.
If a character is a jerk – and this is gender neutral – I’m done as a reader. Because at that point, I could not care less about that person being happy. I can’t cheer; I don’t sit on the edge of my seat hoping that the difficulties can be worked out.
I love this. And I love the Alpha male. And I think this explains a lot of the draw of the Alpha.
I think – regarding the comments – the “Alpha Male” is getting contaminated by the “Alphole” which are two different men. Please don’t forget that the Alphole is just an asshole masquerading as an Alpha Male.
MrsJoseph – oh I like what you said. Definitely, if Alpha male is not alphole I can really like the character, the problem is that in the books I have read in the past they were the synonyms often enough.
I’m not drawn to alpha male heroes because of what Kate Sherwood said. I find that the ones who do work for me have been in gothic romance, where the heroine is the focus, or humorous romances, where the alpha-ness is taken down a peg through mishaps. Even in the much-maligned Fifty Shades of Grey, I wasn’t put off by Christian Grey because I see him through Ana’s maturing eyes, as opposed to him taking over her narrative if we got into his head. Because what irks me about alphas and alpha-holes in romance is when they dominate the narrative and the heroine’s journey.
@Michelle Sagara: Wulfric Bedwyn and Beowolf Malloren were whom I thought of as I was reading your post this morning. :)
The alpha hero I like best is a feminist, not the sexist, borderline misogynists that seem prevalent across the genre.
I enjoyed the essay, but it just does not feel like a complete explanation to me; or, I guess, it does not justify the prevalence of alpha male-y characters in modern romance. Full disclosure: I LOVE alpha male heroes in my romance. The alpha-ier, the better. At the same time, I would never, ever in a million eons abide that sort of behavior in my real life. And I’m not sure why, but this bugs me.
I mean, from a rather shallow perspective, it’s interesting (read: weird) that many smart, powerful, educated, feminist women enjoy their romance with a healthy heaping of alpha male-ness. And yes, I agree that it’s a “fantasy”, but it’s also an idealization because the reader (who may or may not put herself in the heroine’s place) has constant and intimate insight into the alpha male’s psyche. Not only is that generally impossible in real life, but it allows for the excusing away of many of the hero’s otherwise douchey behaviors because his “thoughts” or “intentions” are genuine and loving.
But, if my husband had a scrolling marquee above his head that told me what he was thinking every time he did or said something stupid and his thoughts were lovely and sweet and showed that he was just thinking about my well-being, I still kinda doubt I would excuse the stupid. So why is it ok to excuse the hero’s behaviors; behaviors that, without the sneak-peak into his conscience, would usually justify a restraining order….
There aren’t a lot of alpha heroes that are far enough away from the alph-hole archetype for me, but what struck me about this specific exploration of the care-taker alpha is that it seems to be coming out of the same fantasy as a certain type that I’d class as a beta hero that I’ve been seeing and loving a lot lately (partly because several of Courtney Milan’s heroes in a row have struck me as fitting). If the fantasy of the caretaker alpha is that he’s somebody who has everything under control and can be the adult for himself and others, the fantasy of the caretaker beta would be that he’s somebody who can look at the heroine, see that she has a plan, and proceeds to do everything he can to help her achieve it, whether that’s through helping her with it directly or by making sure everything else is taken care of like bringing her food while she’s working. The difference may lie mostly in whether or not he thinks his judgment should take precedence over hers.
What a great article and great comments — I think you nailed it for me, Michelle, caregiver alpha is my catnip, otherwise I am far more interested in something else. I think for me the difference between an alpha and a beta is that beta heroes come with vulnerability, often worn openly (at least towards the other protagonist(s)), and I usually find that far more interesting as a reader. My comfort reads are mostly capital-F fantasy as that’s what I grew up on, but they definitely have the caregiving part going on (Heralds of Valdemar, hello, yes I would like a magical talking horse to be my best friend forever thank you).
I really like the part where you talk about having tried to put romance into books and it’s not easy and deserves more than being shoe-horned in. GOSH YES. Love story in SFF that is reward for hero being heroic is ugh, but that’s another conversation entirely.
(I really enjoy your books, and shout-out to fellow Torontonian)
@Kate Sherwood: I’d nominate the Mercy Thompson series. Mercy and Adam are married now in the series and he is an Alpha (in the werewolf sense of the word) and I never feel like what he does diminishes or tries to diminish Mercy. I feel similarly about Kate/Curran from Kate Daniels.
Thanks for the recs, guys – I’ve got some reading to do! Yay!
I don’t really like alpha male books and yet I’m reading The King by JR Ward right now. So much testosterone and they are literally growling “Mine” throughout the story. I’m raising my eyebrows a lot while I read this story and yet still enjoying it.
I think the fantasy this story and others like it are fulfilling is that the woman is being loved and pampered and cared for but in this series at least, the women are literally imprisoned by their mates — for their safety, but still…
In my household, I am probably the alpha: strong personality, three sons and a stay-at-home husband who raised our children while I worked. Maybe I’m getting something out of the fantasy of being taken care of for a while but it really pisses me off to be told what to do in real life.
This is the heart of the issue for me. There’s an ENORMOUS difference between caretaking and controlling, and I see too much of the latter being foisted off as the former. Telling me what to do or laying down rules is simply NOT caretaking to me, it’s infantilizing.
I had an interesting conversation on twitter about this post and how my reading experiences/preferences didn’t align with it. What I meant as an attempt to share a different POV turned into a bit of a feminist debate. I’m really sensitive to suggestions that romantic suspense (the genre I write) is inherently anti-feminist because of the damsel in distress trope. Some authors are sensitive to the suggestion that alpha heroes are anti-feminist. But are they? I don’t consider “alpha takes over in the bedroom” anti-feminist. If alpha takes over the heroine’s entire life, even in a caretaking manner, I have a hard time seeing that sort of storyline as feminist. Which is not a judgement of readers who enjoy it or authors who write it. Not feminist doesn’t mean harmful to women or bad for you.
I’m thinking of Lisa Kleypas’s contemporaries, which have alpha caretaker heroes who don’t boss around the heroine or treat her like she’s helpless. I can handle those alphas. Others have terrible attitudes toward women and I don’t find that sexy or comforting in the least.
I tend to prefer a more realistic style of romance vs. over-the-top. It’s not unreasonable for women to expect good men, great sex and passion in real life, so what I seek in the pages of a romance isn’t pure fantasy to me. But I do like to read about things I would never do in real life, exciting situations and heroines who are more adventurous than I am. I also enjoy scenes in which the *heroine* takes over things like the household, and she cleans/organizes. I hate cleaning in real life. I like nursemaid heroines and wounded heroes as well, not something I enjoy in reality. I think what bothers me most is a passive heroine. I want her to be active, make decisions and have a true partnership w/ the hero.
Interesting essay and discussion!
I think one of the issues that makes this difficult to debate is that different things turn everyone on. And when we’re talking romance, a non-insignificant factor is “what turns me on”. For some people, having someone come in and, yeah, take over significant parts of the heroine’s life, even (or especially) without her explicit consent is, in and of itself, something that they find sexy. They wouldn’t find it sexy in real life, because there are consequences to it beyond it being hot (and then, some would – I’ve known people who are perfectly happy in power exchange relationships and don’t feel infantilized by it at all). And if you don’t /get/ that, it can be very difficult to see how anyone else can enjoy it. For example, I don’t “get” humiliation play, name calling, or even really dirty talking – them’s fightin’ words, as the saying goes. Some people, on the other hand, /love/ it. If I read a romance that used it, even if it was pre-negotiated part of explicitly BDSM play, I’d shudder and put the book away. But that doesn’t mean people who are into that are anti-feminist, nor that their fantasies are simply an outgrowth of patriarchal social conditioning that they have no control over and ought to be broken of for their own good. The personal is political, sure, but it’s also /personal/. And sometimes things are just sexy in fantasy, when they aren’t in real life.
Another appeal of the more combative/dominating alpha male, at least for me, is Drama. I like to read about dramatic relationships. I’m fairly drama-adverse in my real life, so reading about a heroine who is pursuing a relationship with (or being pursued by) a guy who’d I never touch in a million years in real life is /fun/. I know that it’s going to end in a HEA, somehow, so the drama and trauma is just like a roller coaster on the way there. Which isn’t to say other types of relationships can’t be dramatic, and that the drama can’t come from external conflicts, but I just enjoy this particular kind of drama.
This reminds me of a quote attributed to Françoise Gilot. At one point a clueless interviewer marveled that she had been with Picasso for many years, and then later married Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. Ms. Gilot’s response was that Lions mated with Lionesses, not rabbits.
For me, it’s hard to separate the fantasy from the reality of lived experience. Even when a care taking alpha seems nice on paper, I usually end up running into stumbling blocks, because I’m a person with a disability. I know people who would cheerfully swoop in and “take care of me” without my consent. Sometimes I have let them. But those people would be *terrible* relationship partners for me, because the balance of power wouldn’t be even the slightest bit equal. If a huge part of my fantasy reading involves watching a heroine lose her autonomy, then I can’t even remotely get on bored with that, because I know how it looks in reality and I just can’t divorce myself from it. So I’d take Jamie Fraser over Roarke any day because I never felt like Jamie was a threat to Claire’s autonomy, while I felt that Roarke came in and took over Eve’s life… which makes me super uncomfortable.
I like alpha males and they’re fun to read about even though I’m not sure how many exist in real life. That’s not a problem for me because I read about vampires and werewolves in addition to contemporary romance. The bottom line for me is that the alpha hero does not make decisions for the woman. He doesn’t lie to manipulate her and he doesn’t cheat on her. When he is forgiven for these actions all romance flies out the window for me.
There’s a fine line between alpha male and classic narcissist. There are many, many books out there in which the heroine is only seen by the hero as something in relation to him. His agenda is more important than her feelings because of his need to protect her or his claim on her is challenged. Her feelings or ability to resolve the situation herself are ignored in the face of his need to protect his image of himself. He decides if she needs protecting or help and acts unilaterally telling himself, and the heroine, that’s it’s for her own good when it’s for actually for his. This is why I stopped reading the Kate Daniels series after book 6.
The alpha can be jerk and I’ll still like him. Bad attitude is also not a problem for me and nor is controlling in bed the same as controlling someone’s life.
To address a few points and/or specifics mentioned above:
1. I’ve always considered Roarke more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy than most of the supernatural heroes I read, but I don’t see him as having *taken* anything *from* Eve: he respects her job (which is almost all she had, before opening up in her personal life), where she faces armed killers on a daily basis, and while R. enjoys dressing utterly un-clothes-conscious Eve in gorgeous gowns, etc., he’s just as likely to pick out the perfect power suit to intimidate her latest suspect in interrogation.
2. Patricia Briggs is one of my all-time favorites. Here, I’ll limit my discussion to how she demonstrates two different types of heroine in her werewolf sub-series’, but whether you’re talking Mercy & Adam (physically weaker but personally assertive mechanic finally decides, and proves, she can hold her own with a packleader/businessman) or Anna & Charles (brutalized-into-timidity newbie werewolf finds a white knight, and her own courage, with an otherwise-deadly werewolf enforcer), the literally Alpha heroes know a mate is meant to be a partner. They support their mates’ strength and growth, even when they have to fight their own protective instincts … and they’re not simply allowed to get away with deviations from this.
3. I don’t really understand how people can enjoy stories/characters that violate their real-world ethics/principles. (Off-topic example: I remember I stopped reading one well-written epic fantasy because I disliked the magical paradigm: gain abilities — e.g., keen eyesight — by taking them from others — i.e., leaving them blind! — and all that separated good guys from bad was whether consent and recompense was involved.) I get a bit squirmy even reading suspense stories where one protagonist is lying/concealing too much, until and unless the story works out with real honesty and change. I enjoy the Kate Daniels series, but it took me a while to warm up to Curran, and still when he relapses into “I know what’s best for you” I want to kick him — but so does Kate!
Maybe that’s the determining factor for me: can the supposed hero acknowledge their own flaws and mistakes, and learn from them? A character is a lot more appealing — and believable — when they’re not some impossibly idealized paragon of all strengths and virtues. Being a “grown-up” doesn’t mean never needing to lean on anyone else.
I’ll give you one more example of a werewolf Alpha who’s neither perfect nor an “alphahole”: Rule Turner in Eileen Wilks’ Lupi series. While I enjoy stand-alones, my faves are often series’ that continue to follow the same protagonists (w/o @#$%^& cliffhangers!). The best part is that you can watch two people building a RELATIONSHIP, not just a “romance”: addressing issues internal and external with candor and vulnerability, sticking together despite the inevitable snags and missteps. To me, that makes it more of an aspiration than a fantasy, but still a “comfort read”.
@Diane D.: I agree that adults sometimes need to lean on someone else, but adults also give each other the choice of whether or not to lean. Without choice, you are not leaning on someone by definition since you don’t know you need help or are being forced not to act.
@Abra, if anything I said seemed to imply otherwise, it wasn’t intentional. In a healthy relationship, either partner should be able to ask “Do you need my help with X?” *and* “Do you WANT my help with X?”, and accept the answer, because it will be an honest one… but *sometimes* the question doesn’t need to be asked, because the answer is known from previous mutual experience.
@Diane D.: It’s the best when the h/h work as a couple in terms of knowing what actions each should take. Once the couple reaches that level of trust and understanding, the relationship is really exciting. Each side brings the qualities that have made them stand out to solve the problem.
Are you saying that when the question doesn’t need to be asked because the hero (or Cat in the first Night Huntress book) knows the answer will be no, so it’s ok to act unilaterally? Or do you mean, if you know the answer will be no, the response should be “let’s talk about it”. If she still says no, then “let’s make a plan to resolve the problem that works for both of us”. This is a simplistic summary, but it happens in more naturally in several times in the Suzanne Wright books. He tries to dominate, she fights back (physically or verbally), and they decide what to do together. Sometimes it’s what he wanted in the first place, but at least she knows what is going on and it’s her choice to lean on him. Other examples of this dynamic working are in the Imp Series, the October Daye Series, and the Ivy Granger Series books. That’s not to say that the characters in these books don’t act like big time tools, but betrayal of trust isn’t part of the romantic relationships.
This is a serious question for you because I know for most people issues like this don’t interfere with their enjoyment of the book as a whole. The heroine’s acceptance of both his actions when they hurt her and the heroes capacity or expressed intention to do it again are good enough. I can forgive a lot in a book world I love – contrived endings, poor writing, some awkward dialogue, jerky or morally ambiguous characters, but this takes the romance out of PNR for me. I don’t understand why most people don’t feel that way and I’d like to.